How the Sierra Club corrupts Higher Education: or, How UConn became a “Cool School”
Having alienated its local chapters by selling out its name and mission to Clorox in 2008, and through its failure to get neoliberal carbon-trading legislation passed in Congress 2 years later, the Sierra Club has struggled to maintain both its relevance and funding. Cleverly adhering to the EDF “market-based solution” model of actively greenwashing to gain money and power, it has begun to insinuate itself into higher education by handing out “Cool School” awards for “environmental sustainability.”
Let’s take a look at how Sierra Club is greenwashing on behalf of the University of Connecticut. Universities, hungering for anything they can use to market and sell their increasingly expensive product of uncertain value, use the “Cool School” award in press releases and other boosterings. Since the Sierra Club used to be the nation’s premier enviro-action corporation, and is a familiar “brand,” UConn consumers feel good when they read:
The No. 1 ranking, announced today, is the culmination of UConn’s rapid rise on the list every year since its debut in the top 50 in 2010. More than 2,000 colleges and universities in the United States are eligible for ranking by the magazine each year.
The Sierra Club, the largest environmental grassroots organization in the United States, ranks schools based on sustainability data collected in several subject areas, including energy supply, efficiency, food, academics, purchasing, transportation, waste management, administration, and financial investments.
Sierra magazine’s editors lauded UConn for a wide variety of initiatives, including offering more than 600 classes relating to sustainability; reducing water use by 15 percent since 2005; and serving a large amount of locally sourced food in its dining facilities.
“Sustainability, green technology, and environmental stewardship”—who doesn’t love those things?
And who better than a trusted brand to judge which schools are “with it”—as in cool school, man?
Sierra Club says UConn is the coolest of all cool schools, and it must be so.
Sierra Club is the coolest, too, or else it would not be able to judge coolness. It wouldn’t have the authority to hand out coolness awards, either.
By choosing UConn to be it’s #1 coolest school, the Sierra Club awarded to the perhaps fastest growing and most environmentally-unsustainable university in the nation.
I know this because while was I was studying and teaching American Nature Writing at UConn, I worked with a group of environmentalist activists called the “Coalition to Save Horsebarn Hill” to prevent UConn from illegally building a Pfizer research facility on watershed protection land.
Horsebarn Hill protects UConn’s Fenton River wellfields, and the raw surface water that downstream Willimantic consumes. When UConn tried to develop it for Pfizer, it was defined as undevelopable “Class 1 land” by CT’s Dept. of Public Health. And, because it provides water to 30,000 +/- people everyday, UConn defined itself as a water company, then, too. This meant that the Pfizer site was illegal to develop. UConn was in court fighting the Coalition about impacts on birds, viewsheds and about false advertizing in its PR campaign publications; and, added to this, the Class 1 stuff was the last straw for Pfizer, which abandoned the project:
A water company cannot assign or lease class I land, and can only sell it to the state, a municipality, or another water company. The buyer must agree to maintain the land subject to the restrictions in the law and those imposed by the DPH permit. The buyer cannot sell, lease, assign, or change the use of the land without a permit.
In addition, the utility can only change the land’s use if it demonstrates that the change (1) will not harm the purity and adequacy of water supply, now or in the future, and (2) is consistent with a DPH- approved water supply plan filed by the utility. If DPH believes the proposal may significantly harm water supply, it may refer the application to an outside consultant for a detailed review, at the utility’s expenses.
Ever since I discovered how UConn mismanages its water resources, and pretends it follows laws that it is not required by law to follow, I’ve kept my eye on it. A university that prides itself for being “environmentally sustainable” should live up to its advertising, no? As an alumni who works in the “environmental” field I need my degree to have value, and can’t allow my alma mater to totally disgrace itself.
Pretty soon after this article was published, Dan Jones’s environmental reporting desk was shut down by the Courant. He was one of the best environmental journalists in the nation. I was lucky I was able to get the story to him, b/c he was the real deal. I learned, then, that when the public remains without facts, PR departments get to make the facts up and shape the collective narrative; and since American consumers trust “big brands,” the narratives we get are “market friendly” and history is an advertising campaign designed to sway public opinion and create hungers, instead of a set of facts, a record of human actions meant to be learned from. I saw the same disappearing act again a few years later at the Courant, when it killed its Northeast Sunday magazine soon after it featured “Big Bad Neighbor,” a devastating expose of UConn’s extralegal environmental crimes.
In the meantime, the forces of “market-friendly” corruption within CT’s state agencies mobilized themselves, and a month after Jones’ article was published, in
“response to a UConn request, the attorney general held on November 29, 2000, that statutes including those governing water companies, do not apply to state agencies unless they are specifically included in them.”
Instead of enforcing the water protection laws, Attorney General (now Senator) Blumenthal deregulated UConn.
Because a Big Decision had been made by the market-friendlies in Fairfield County and Hartford that UConn was going to be a primary generator of CT’s economic future. “UConn 2000” was the name they gave to their plan, and to the multi-billion taxpayer $$s used to realize it. This initiative never ended, or realized its goals, and “UConn 2000” is now called “Next Generation UConn”:
The first step in realizing this plan involved transforming UConn’s main campus town of Storrs into a city, and that meant building lots of environmentally-unsustainable autocentric, corpo-industrial infrastructure there. With widespread backing and trademarked Go Huskies confidence, the UConn administration chose the Horsebarn site because it was the most beautiful and conspicuous part of Storrs; and, the most characteristic and expressive marketing-symbol of the University’s agricultural roots and land-grant status. The pretty site would have made for endless good advertising, and for branding.
Since the Big Decision had already been made, there was no officially-expressed concern that Pfizer would be playing with Plum Island plagues in the building: an activity that made it a highest-risk land-use. When boosters envisioned the future of Horsebarn Hill, they saw one shiny industrial research building lined up after another along the road that encircles the lovely pastures.
Since the Big Decision had already been made, the official PR blather steadfastly confirmed the Big Decision had been made. UConn’s President Austin never stopped insisting that UConn was following all environmental regulations and polices; e.g.:
The Class 1 stuff ruined UConn’s PR campaign, and the retreat of Pfizer removed the centerpiece of “UConn 2000.” Understandably needing to save the UConn “brand,” Austin turned to Blumenthal who changed the interpretation of CT’s water protection laws so the ones that applied to UConn vanished. An entire constellation of “water company” laws—27 of them according to Ct Water Works Association—were suddenly unenforceable upon the publicly-owned UConn water infrastructure. What UConn was doing to Class 1 lands was henceforth legal. Blumenthal legalized crime, because the decision was made: “UConn 2000” was more important than the law: esp. the pesky ones preventing industrial development on Class 1 land in Storrs.
As the centerpiece of “UConn 2000,” the Pfizer partnership was meant to be model for all other taxpayer-funded multibillion dollar UConn sprawl building frenzies—all of which would enjoy Blumenthal’s exemption of UConn from CT’s environmental laws.
Soon enough, I realized that Blumenthal’s opinion extended to all of CT’s statutes, exempting UConn from every single one that didn’t include “UConn” in the wording.
If this is true, then:
Do think CT lawmakers will ever insert “UConn” into all the statutes that should contain it?
If you were a corporation, would you like to partner w/UConn?
As these things were happening, I was writing a dissertation about the contemporary survival of Thomas Jefferson’s truth that “freedom is the gift of nature.” It is equally true that to destroy nature is to destroy the gift of freedom; and this was a truth I was witnessing. UConn’s destruction of nature and common law was coeval with the destruction of representative government and rule of law, and the demise of the Courant as an inquiring journalistic newspaper. People felt sorry for me, because I’d lost my battle to have Uconn abide by water laws; and I’d remind them this was not my battle alone. It was ours—to save the soul of the University of Connecticut, and to protect UConn and Willimantic’s water supplies. If a university is not civilized, how can it confer civilization? Any entity that destroys its own water supply, destroys itself.
I continued putting puzzle pieces together and learned that UConn, Storrs is a place of high pastures and woodland underlain by impermeable bedrock, a geology susceptible to groundwater pollution. I also learned UConn didn’t have enough water to supply its industrial sprawl. Storrs was and still is a textbook example of a water-shortage crisis, the kind that UConn sends professors abroad to “3rd world nations” to end. (I have no problem w/UConn sending professors abroad for this reason. I do have a problem w/UConn deliberately creating “3rd world” water crises in Storrs, however, b/c it shows that UConn’s President Herbst is all talk, no walk, when it comes to “environmental sustainability” and “environmental stewardship.”)
At a “UConn 2000” “Master Planning” meeting, I told the administration it would soon pump dry its wellfields and Fenton river dry—the water resources the Horsebarn Hill/Class 1 watershed land was protecting. That would destroy the precious population of rare, endangered native brook trout who lived there—a beautiful and legendary species that UConn was gifted with, that anglers for generations had fished and celebrated and loved. I was laughed at by Larry Schilling, UConn’s executive director of architectural and engineering services, and who later resigned in disgrace; Courant political reporter Michelle Jacklin soon found herself relieved of her desk after writing the article I just linked.
I was dissed by UConn’s 6-figure hatchetmen, & finally became a pariah to much of the administration, faculty and students who believed these dangerous clowns—one of whom I feel genuine empathy for, and all of whom were good storytellers. I understood the collective need to believe what UConn’s PR dept. wanted everybody to believe—for who would ever think a university with such a fabulous women’s basketball team would attempt to commit, much less condone, environmental crimes?
3 years later, 8,000 native brook trout were killed by UConn: ___
By 2005, I’d moved to the Nonotuck biome; but the papertrail I’d entered into the public record continued to be a basis upon which regulatory and political action occurred. Google “Fenton river study” and you’ll see the Fenton became the site of many important scientific studies and reports, which allowed state regulators—backed by us professional naysayers and something or others—to have the USGS (i.e., the Feds) establish a gauge station on the Fenton that signals when UConn should turn off the pumps.
Without the papertrail, the history of UConn’s water mismanagement would have been unknown, and state and federal regulators never could have had the justification or political support for stepping in. UConn could have pretended it was a once in a thousand year mistake.
I never had contact with a single Sierra Club rep or member the entire time I was dealing w/UConn. There was, and is, no eastern CT Sierra Club chapter. Until it started devising new revenue streams and realized greenwashing for big universities could lead to serious market-friendly cred and corporate sponsorship, Sierra Club had nothing to do w/UConn or trying to get environmental laws enforced there.
I got 3 bills raised in the CT legislature to have “UConn” returned to water statutes that Blumenthal exempted it from; the most recent was raised this year.
Where the state- of national- Sierra Club was during the legislative debate, I can’t tell you except that it was nowhere to be seen—b/c it had made its own Big Decision.
In its Cool Schools contest entry form, the Sierra Club does not ask the universities questions about obeying water laws.
No prob. It’s cool.
What isn’t cool, is that in response to Sierra Club’s query about water consumption, UConn takes credit for the Fenton gauging station and lowflow shutdown regime (see page 186):
This is the 2nd year that UConn has submitted this information, which is good PR but belies the history of its environmental practices in Storrs.
Sierra Club has allowed UConn to pat itself on the back for killing 8,000 endangered trout, and then abiding by a settlement it had to agree to, to save its carefully-constructed “Eco-Husky” brand.
Since there is no historical context attached to this backpatting, UConn sounds like it deserves to have its back patted.
And Sierra Club is patting it.
This cool school backpatting is what greenwashing looks like.
I contacted the CT state legislative chair of Sierra Club last year to request that who ever is reading these contest entry forms should know what actually happened. This chair knows what’s going on. He promised to do it, and never did.
I contacted him again early this year, when UConn began freaking out the entire state, as it hunted for water to supply its lemon-socialism sprawl plans:
I never received a response from Sierra Club.
Sierra Club does not care to think about, much less make a public statement, about “3rd world” water consumption crisis that UConn has deliberately created in CT. This crisis can still be avoided if UConn “environmentally-sustainably” redevelops brownfields in struggling CT cities for its public/private industrial research labs.
As you can see, the above article clip is dated 12/21/12.
UConn’s contest entry was filed on 4/21/13, 5 months later.
Within these 5 months, the CT state legislative chair of Sierra Club didn’t notify the Cool School award committee that UConn was shaking up the entire state for water to supply its environmentally-unsustainable sprawl development in Storrs.
Or that another UConn water company bill had been raised to reverse Blumenthal’s legalization of crime.
Or maybe he did.
UConn’s “3rd world” watergrab was the biggest environmental story of the year in Connecticut, because a water grab like this has never been seen by its present generations. We can be sure the CT state legislative chair of Sierra Club has never seen anything like it. It was kinda hard to avoid if you know about CT’s environment, or even read newspapers.
Here are some of the 12/19/12 minutes from CT’s Council on Environmental Quality; you’re going to tell me that the CT state legislative chair of Sierra Club didn’t know what the entire environmental community in CT was freaking out about?
Hard to believe Sierra Club could hand out its highest Cool School award for this unregulated “3rd world” water grabbing, but it did.
This is what greenwashing is.
Sierra Club’s Cool School award covers up UConn’s environmentally-unsustainable unregulated “3rd world” water-grabbing business.
Sierra Club is doing this greenwashing on purpose—and is corrupting higher education, and our own culture, by making these terms totally meaningless: “sustainability” and “environmental stewardship.”
I conclude by politely introducing you to the “Director of UConn’s Office of Environmental Policy, Richard Miller, who Herbst called “critical to [UConn/Sierra Club’s public/private partnership’s] success as we work towards sustainability.” From an Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education interview:
State employee Miller is also responsible for filling out the Sierra Club contest forms.
My next post will detail a parallel history of environmental and legal malfeasance at UConn: the history of how UConn sited its hazwaste storage facility on the same Class 1 land you have learned about today, and how, when presented with abundant evidence and the urgings of relevant state agencies, state environmental groups, legislators and adjacent municipalities, UConn—under the “direction” of Mr. Miller—egregiously and cynically refused to do so.
If you’d like to get a taste of what’s next, please enjoy this.